Pride and Profit: how can brands do right by Pride Month?

Rhiannon Shaw
January 25, 2024

As we reach the end of another Pride Month, we find ourselves looking back at how brands sought to demonstrate their commitment to the LGBTQ+ community in perfunctory ways; they installed rainbow routes on the Uber app, Skittles yet again got rid of their rainbow, and dozens of companies swapped out their sleek black-and-white logos for gaudy Pride editions (well, in countries where they’ve calculated that the risk is worth the reward – see Bethesda and Mercedez-Benz)

You’d have to be willfully obtuse not to have noticed the pushback against brands cynically appropriating a liberation movement to sell rainbow sneakers. In recent years such “rainbow capitalism” has flooded the media-sphere, with companies scrambling to be seen as more ostensibly LGBTQ+ friendly than their competitors.

Every year, Twitter highlights how obnoxious these month-long rebrands really are. We meme about it, joke that brands will discard us when July comes along as if this particular subset of consumers are no longer relevant. The note is so prevalent that even SNL (themselves the butt of the joke across much of the Twittersphere) has picked up on it. We know we’re being exploited, and we’re media-literate enough to identify why.

In an era where brands can be held to a higher standard by social media discourse, there are harsh lessons to learn. Practice what you preach – whether that’s not covering yourself in rainbows while having discriminatory employment practices or not appropriating queer culture while making an anathema of trans people.

It recalls the criticisms aimed at companies during the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Posting a black square or a rainbow heart smacks of a brand desperate to be seen, while also not making any substantial waves in the conversation. Cautious Social Media Managers might decide it’s better to say nothing than be seen to be exploiting minority groups for capital – but then, of course, you become notable by your absence. There are big brands still supporting anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives worldwide, including conversion therapy. Not least fast food brand Chick-fil-A, which has a long history of doing so. In this context, neutrality isn’t really an option. In fact, brands can be rewarded for turning business rivalries into social justice battlegrounds.

Cautious Social Media Managers might decide it’s better to say nothing than be seen to be exploiting minority groups for capital – but then, of course, you become notable by your absence.

This might show us the way forward for a brand that honestly wants to celebrate Pride without coming across as painfully out-of-touch and exploitative. The nuance and complications at the heart of what Pride represents in modern life can’t be condensed down into a neat slogan or a garish rainbow suit – sorry Target. But translating rainbows into revolutionary policy that actually engages with the problems facing the LGBTQ+ community can and should be recognised as a legitimate means of marking Pride Month. It’s an opportunity for reflection, not deflection with a refracting rainbow mirror.

In the noise of Rainbow Capitalism, such key messaging is lost. It doesn’t matter that Uber is expanding its inclusion policy to make it easier for trans drivers to affirm their identity at work, because what stands out to the vast majority of us who aren’t looking at their Pride month page is this: they’ve gone and made the routes rainbow coloured for no particular reason. Actual work is diluted by such showy displays of ‘allyship’.

And of course, this is not to mention the Pride innovations of brands that are run by LGBTQ+ people. Such brands – who wear their queerness year-round – cleverly subvert Rainbow Capitalism by setting themselves up in opposition to it. They tell us: ‘this is not what gay or bi or trans people want, and we know that because we’re part of these communities. We wouldn’t wear that, or talk like that, or feel our identity could be summed up in a piece of clothing or a cheap, mass-produced tote bag that sits at the back of your closet as soon as July starts’.

The takeaway? LGBTQ+ folk aren’t fools, for the most part. We’re not all the same – in fact, maybe the one thing that brings us all together is our aversion to being exploited via ugly Pride merch. We know what you’re doing and we know why you’re doing it, and why it often smacks of insincerity. So maybe put someone on your team who gets it? Kill two rainbow-coloured birds with one stone?

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